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Garden Daze


I watch the weather closely these days. After a month of lolling about in the summer garden, the cool nights of the last two weeks signaled the onset of fall. Aspens and sumac turn as my garden flings her gaudy summer party dress to the ground giving the ornamental grasses center stage. Blooming in muted fall tones of gold, bronze and silver, the panicles shimmer in softening light. Each night the sun sets farther south along the Front Range skyline toward Pikes Peak. It's mid-September, and fall's first killing freeze waits in the wings.

Hollyhocks that shot skyward in July, bright flowers packed densely on twelve-foot stalks, now bend into the garden path weighted down by crisp brown seed. Sea kale, a haze of honey-scented white flowers in spring, ripened into a cloud of teeny mustard seed pods. Finches feast on Scarlet Maltese Cross flowers ripened into dried capsules of pinhead-sized black seeds .

Historically, I expect the first frost anywhere between Sept. 13 and 20. The extended weather forecast today, Wednesday, Sept. 20, called for a low of 35 degrees on Saturday. That gave me plenty of time, four days, to think about what plants to bring into the house or greenhouse, what to protect with covers outside, and what to let go into the chilly arms of death. It also gave me ample time to get hysterical about all of this, fretting about who's to live, who's to die. Will I regret letting that special scented geranium go? Will I rue the day, come January, after months of care, when it's covered with aphids? Why save any plant from a natural, painless death by freezing for a prolonged, sorry, miserable life indoors?

Two months ago I'd made a list of tender perennials to pot up and bring in before frost. Four hibiscus plants, Castor bean plant (Ricinus communis), cathedral bells vine (Cobaea scandens) and Lemon Verbena. By overwintering the cathedral bells vine, a perennial vine in Mexico, I start out next June with a husky root system that takes off like gangbusters outdoors. Last year's overwintered Lemon Verbena got three feet tall this year and actually flowered. This will be the first winter for overwintering the castor bean and hibiscus plants indoors, keeping them semi-dormant in a dark, cool (no cooler than 40 degrees) area of the studio. One of my favorite experiments this year, Jewels of Opar (Talinum paniculatum), has light avocado-colored succulent leaves and starry pink flowers that form clusters of ruby red seedpods -- the jewels. It thrived in baking heat, along with cleome, holy basil, nicotiana, and white feverfew in a new bed I stuffed full of annuals on the south side of the house. I will dig up one plant and try to overwinter the fleshy roots.

A tender fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum) native to tropical Africa, southwestern Asia and Arabia, is usually treated as an annual and grown from seed each year. I decided to save the plant, save myself the trouble of starting it from seed, and make divisions of the mother plant in March to plant throughout the garden. I ended up planting the whole plant in a favorite vase-shaped pot along with a coral Salvia, Oregano Dittany of Crete, and Lotus Vine, positioning it to be backlit by the setting sun. This grass formed a huge fountain of delicate green leaves with purplish pink racemes shooting out from the center, a highlight of summer evenings on the back porch.

It's Wednesday still. A last minute weather report predicts a freeze tonight. Having procrastinated once again, I look desperately at my husband. Physically, I can't lift these huge outdoor container plants alone anymore, and I'm feeling mentally unfit to cope with this drama of letting go of or keeping the plants I love. Besides, maybe this winter I should take a break from plants for once. I'm torn between two extremes -- bring them all in or let them all die. Tim, my godlike empath and saint, registers my dilemma, feels my panic, grabs the dolly and gets to work. By midday all my pots are in the studio greenhouse.

Throughout the day we made other preparations for the cold night. I cut back Lemon Verbena leaves and collected rose hips for winter teas, harvested a bunch of basil to process in olive oil and freeze, picked all the ripe tomatoes, summer squash, string beans and strawberries, and potted up a choice lemon eucalyptus and fuzzy-leaved pine-scented lavender. Before nightfall Tim covered the tomatoes, beans and strawberries with tarps. We curled up on the sofa watching a nightful of movies while winter crept into our garden.

We awoke to the gas furnace humming along and a chilly 30 degrees. I glanced out my bedroom window surprised to see the African Blue basil plant next to the gravel walkway still green, the flower stalks still upright. We had dodged the bullet -- our garden granted a stay of execution by our resident garden divas. The next frost is not due for a couple of days. Maybe this is a sign -- maybe I'll save just a couple more plants.

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